Henry comes home
THIERRY Henry was asked this week what the 3,000 or so Barcelona fans in London today should go and see before they go home. "Well I would say Highbury, but they knocked it down and built apartment blocks", came back the bittersweet reply.
Ever since the Champions League draw matched Arsenal with the holders, the Catalan press have spoken of a nostalgic Henry preparing to "go home". Except it isn't quite home. It is the Emirates, and as Henry plays out what looks like being a disappointing last season at Barcelona, there are parallels with his last campaign for Arsenal on the very same ground.
It was at Highbury where Henry played himself into the record books and into the hearts of the fans who voted him the greatest player in the club's history. In contrast, the enduring image of the Emirates Henry during his final season with Arsenal -- 2006-07 -- is of a frustrated forward down on his knees banging the newly-laid turf after not receiving a pass from Cesc Fabregas or an uncomfortable captain counting down the days to his inevitable departure to Barcelona.
Even his most adoring Arsenal fans would perhaps admit Henry stayed one season too many, and Barcelona supporters now believe history might be repeating itself at the Nou Camp.
After last year's renaissance helped the side to a grand slam of trophies and allowed Henry to cross off the last remaining trophy on his CV by winning the Champions League, this year's campaign has so far been flat.
In 2008-09 he hit 18 goals including two memorable strikes in a superb performance at the Bernabeu as Barca beat Real Madrid 6-2 at the end of the season. This time he has scored just three goals in 14 starts. He was taken off at half time a week ago in Barcelona's 2-0 home victory over Osasuna and at the weekend he was on the plane to Mallorca but then left to watch Barca's 1-0 win from the stand despite being fully fit.
Tonight he is expected to start, with coach Pep Guardiola calling on his experience and the added motivation of performing in England again to help his side establish a first-leg lead in the Champions League quarter-final.
But when Henry talks of tonight's game he speaks of playing out of a duty to the Barca fans who dream of contesting the May 22 final at the Bernabeu, the home of Real, their great rivals, more than of a desire to show what he is still capable of. As if he thinks the memory of 226 goals in eight seasons with Arsenal is best left as it is without any need for a postscript.
"It is like Xavi leaving Barcelona and then having to go back one day to play against his old club," he said. "You are prepared but it is a strange feeling. If I'm picked of course I will give everything. We are playing a Champions League quarter-final and I know that for Barca fans it is very important to reach the final this year and if possible to win it. For them it is a dream to reach Madrid but for me it is strange to have to cross with Arsenal on the way."
The comparison with Xavi who started at Barcelona as a 13-year-old might be exaggerated but it illustrates the 'one-man club' feeling Henry has despite his years at Monaco, a brief spell with Juventus and his time at Barca. "When you play in a team and you give everything, the people pay you back for all the effort you have put in," he says of being named Arsenal's greatest ever player.
"I had a special relationship with the Arsenal fans. That honour was like another trophy for me. A trophy from the heart. They are incredible supporters. They always help you and the team, and at Highbury the atmosphere was superb."
"He is a player who still has Arsenal in his heart," his Barcelona manager, Guardiola, said last night. "He is the best player who has ever played for Arsenal, he scored more than 200 goals, it's amazing. He is a huge part of the history of this club."
Henry speaks of Arsenal's "Invincible season" -- 2003-04 -- with more passion than he has ever spoken of last season's league, cup and Champions League treble with Barcelona. "In today's football playing against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool and all those games away from home that are difficult to win, it is almost impossible to go unbeaten and yet we achieved it. That will always stay in the history books, but losing the Champions League final was very hard to take."
Losing that final in 2006 to, ironically, Barcelona, was perhaps the key to Henry's original U-turn on a deal to join Barca that had been set up with the club's financial president at the time, Ferran Soriano. He was informed while the two teams were still in Paris that Henry would not be coming after all. Even Arsene Wenger was surprised.
Henry felt he could not walk out on the club after losing in such a way. The debt to the supporters and to Wenger was perhaps too great. "I started with Wenger. He gave me my debut when I was just 17, and after that we met again in London," he remembered this week. "He had a lot of confidence in me and I have a very special relationship with him. He has done a lot for me. Without him I don't know what would have happened to me.
"Wenger changed the way Arsenal play. He has changed the lives of the fans. Before, they went to the games knowing that their team would win and nothing more, but right now Arsenal and Barcelona are the two teams who try to play football and for me that is so important. He has changed the way the team play but still won trophies. He will always be the best coach the club has ever had."
So this is the Gunners' greatest ever manager against their greatest ever player? Wenger will know not to take Henry's return this season of three goals too seriously. Some of this term's dip has been down to bad luck in front of goal and the emergence of young winger Pedro. He admitted to feeling off the pace after France's recent friendly defeat to Spain but said: "I am training well and feeling much better. I think you could see the improvement the other day against Valencia and Stuttgart."
Arsenal fans will just hope it is the Emirates form and not the old Highbury style that he has brought with him. "Now I am an Arsenal follower and always will be," he said. If that's the way he plays this evening then that will suit his supporters in north London just fine. (© Independent News Service)